Being Liberal or not being Glenn Beck

Being a bit behind in my reading (as always), I picked up The Nation from November 22 a few days ago to read Patricia Williams’ column, Veritas-iness and the American Way.  This started a train of thought about education, reading, why so many followers of popular conservatives are uneducated and how much of a threat this is to the American experiment. It also got me thinking about why being liberal became a bad thing.  Somewhere in recent history “liberals” became “progressives”.

According to my 11th Edition of the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, the first definition of liberal is related to education, “of, relating to, or based on the liberal arts”.  The archaic meaning if “of or befitting a man of free birth”.  More current meanings include “marked by generosity” and “broad-minded esp: not bound by authoritarianism, orthodoxy, or traditional forms.”  The entry goes on to explain “Liberal suggests openhandedness in the giver and largeness in the thing or amount given…”  From these meanings the political philosophy of liberalism was born.  Liberalism being defined as “a political philosophy based on a belief in progress, the essential goodness of the human race and the autonomy of the individual and standing for the protection of political and civil liberties.”  On the other hand, a conservative is defined as “tending to disposed to maintain existing views, conditions, or institutions.”  Conservatism is “a disposition in politics to preserve what is established.”

Conservative and liberal.  These are two tensions that should complement each other.  But liberal has become synonymous for the over education elite who want to move away from the traditions of our Founders and the True Meaning of the Constitution. (my caps)  Is this because somehow our education system has failed?

Patricia Williams points out

Sadly, American education has suffered a miserable decline since those days.[when she went to public schools] According to the Programme for International Student Assessment, we are fifteenth in reading literacy, twenty-first in science literacy and twenty-fifth in math literacy. This slide was largely accomplished by a calculated disinvestment in public education that began with the anti-tax movement of the late 1970s. California, where that movement began with a series of ballot initiatives, had one of the best school systems in the world. It now ranks almost dead last here, just above Mississippi.

There’s a curious tension in politics between the popular hunger for better schooling and widespread resentment of those who actually find it. Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin have built a movement around the felt dispossession of those who don’t read newspapers, whose spelling is nonstandard and who cite Shakespeare to “refudiate” book-learning. Beck, who sniffs that public schools should be abolished altogether, exploits this ambivalence brilliantly by establishing his online Beck University, whose basic courses are Faith 101, 102 and 103; Hope 101, 102 and 103; and Charity 101, 102 and 103. Yet Beck U. also has a coat of arms with a numbingly lofty motto: Tyrannis Seditio, Obsequium Deo.

Here is one of Beck’s diagrams copied from AlterNet.

Being one of the over-educated liberals, I find the diagram incoherent and the connections based on a lack of understanding.  Does Glenn Beck understand that George Soros who is the heart of the “obam a pocalypse” help finance movements to overthrow oppressive governments in Eastern Europe? Or that he grew up in Nazi occupied Hungary? So yes, he has a connection to Hitler, but not the kind Beck wants to imply.  And Ivan Jones? 

Williams describes the crowd at the Steward-Colbert rally this way

…While Stewart and Colbert expressly appealed to “the busy majority” of reasonable, middle-of-the-road, somewhat-stressed-but-not-given-to-hysterics people, the signs among the masses were deeply inflected by class consciousness and the national educational divide. Some were relatively subtle: Which Way to Whole Foods? and Anyone for Scrabble Later? Others more overtly referenced Beck’s Rally to Restore Honor: Every Word on This Sign Is Spelled Correctly; I &heart; Evidence-Based Policies; and my favorite: If You Don’t Believe in Government Perhaps You Shouldn’t Run for It.

This was a crowd that listens to NPR (Kiss Me, Nina Totenberg!). It was racially and ethnically diverse ( Fox Told Me I Am a Terrorist). Their humor was sophisticated ( I Clutch My Purse When I See Juan Williams Coming). It was a throng of New York Times readers who eat bagels and peruse the Book Review. They marched with Kindles in hand, and their Patagonia backpacks contained novels by Anna Quindlen and essay collections like David Rakoff’s Don’t Get Too Comfortable: The Indignities of Coach Class, The Torments of Low Thread Count, The Never-Ending Quest for Artisanal Olive Oil and Other First World Problems.

If this sounds like a litany of class markers, we need to remember that class and education are not necessary correlates. This was a population of very diverse Americans who equate political sanity with studiousness and curiosity. It was a gathering of people fluent in subtlety and satire, tolerance and tact; who saw similarity in differences and differences among the similar; who appreciated metaphors, analogical thinking and the discipline of data. This is the opposite of fundamentalism. And it ought to be the very essence of American identity, for we can have no broad civic culture without it. Unfortunately these critical capacities are also the hallmarks of a good liberal arts education, which is increasingly unavailable to any but the very well-off. (The State University of New York, Albany, just announced that it may eliminate its Latin, French, Italian, Russian and theater degree programs.)

Why bother with the nuances of analytical thought? Consider this—recently State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley tweeted: “Happy birthday President #Ahmadinejad. Celebrate by sending Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer home” and “Your 54th year was full of lost opportunities. Hope in your 55th year you will open #Iran to a different relationship with the world.” Sarah Palin tweeted back: “Happy B’day Ahmadinejad wish sent by US Govt. Mind boggling foreign policy: kowtow & coddle enemies; snub allies. Obama Doctrine is nonsense.” This is not merely a lack of irony; it is a form of illiteracy, the kind of flat, childish reading that grasps the basic meaning of each word but not what they mean together.

Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck are frightening in their ignorance and I worry that the ignorance is spreading faster than we can stop it.  The problem in the United States today is not the divide between liberalism and conservative:  that tension has existed since the founding of the country.  The problem is the divide between those who can read and comprehend and those who can’t.  I am not talking here about the quality of the inner city elementary school, although that too is an issue, I am talking about people who are supposed to be educated and still can’t really read and when they do don’t understand what it is they read.  True conservatives should be just as worried about them as liberals like me.

Another reflection on Senator Kennedy

Now that I, like much of Massachusetts, have spent several days glued to the television or, in the case of my husband, participating in the memorial, but before we turn to the speculation about his successor, I want to post a few thoughts from Patricia Williams writing in the Sunday Guardian.

There isn’t anyone who grew up in Massachusetts who doesn’t feel personally touched by the life of Kennedy. There’s the family legacy. His maternal grandfather was the amiably colourful mayor of Boston, John Francis Fitzgerald, the child of immigrants and the first Irish Catholic to achieve such power in the then-English – or “Boston Brahmin” – dominated-political landscape of New England.

The election of “Honey Fitz”, as he was known, was significant because this was the Boston of Henry James and the Irish were very much looked down upon. I remember my grandmother describing signs in the windows of certain establishments that read: “No Irish, no coloured, no dogs.”

The particular struggles of the Irish in Boston is largely forgotten today; indeed, the Kennedys are often characterised as part of “the north east liberal elite”. But the origins of their family success are rooted in a fight that spans all aspects of a broader civil rights movement that stretches back to the 1800s and included not merely African Americans but Irish and Italian immigrants, the descendants of indentured servants, the poor, the labouring classes.

It is true that the senator’s life history was one of great human complexity. And just as the healthcare debates have been disrupted by an astonishing amount of hateful speech, so the national blogosphere is filled with bitter, ungenerous commentary about the time he cheated on an exam at Harvard; or how he called his political advisers before he called paramedics when his car plunged off a bridge on Martha’s Vineyard, leaving the body of Mary Jo Kopechne, a young campaign aide, submerged for nearly nine hours; or whetherhe drank to excess.

But here in Massachusetts, it is the political commitment that counts. It is his public service that means the most and the regional allegiance to this man crosses all partisan boundaries. The Boston Herald, a local tabloid that spilled oceans of ink denouncing him in life, remembered him with uncharacteristic mistiness.

As I write, President Obama is giving the eulogy at Senator Kennedy’s funeral. To African Americans, Obama is “our Kennedy”. I wept when I discovered that the funeral was to be held at the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Although many in the national press cite the church as one close to the hospital where his daughter Kara was treated for lung cancer, or one that is in a neighbourhood once inhabited by Irish immigrants, it is also in the neighbourhood where I grew up. It is in what most Bostonians know as a black neighbourhood, a “dangerous” neighbourhood, a neighbourhood “in transition”.

(This is Tremont Street near Mission Church.  Photograph from the New York Times.)

These days, it reflects the demographic that both Kennedy and Obama represent: a new generation of the American dream. It is a neighbourhood filled with hopeful immigrants from the Caribbean and West Africa and Bosnia and the Middle East. It is on the cusp of gentrification – a neighbourhood of college students and the underemployed, of medical technicians and starving artists.

There’s a black barbershop next door to the church, and a pizza joint and restaurant that serves Jamaican food. If some reporters were surprised when they set up the satellite feeds, those who knew anything about Ted Kennedy and the tradition from which he came were not.

There was a quote from Tennyson’s Ulysses that Senator Kennedy loved, a quote that he read at his brother Robert’s funeral, and one that is now being read as he is laid to rest: ” I am a part of all that I have met… ” begins the stanza. Senator Edward Kennedy lived his life precisely at the crossroads of all that he encountered – at the intersection of statesmanship, of history, of moral purpose, of tragedy, of compromise.

There are many who think that his passing means the end of an era. When I look at the unparalleled outpouring of those he met, whose world he touched, I am confident that the work he began lives on not only in the politics and presidency of Barack Obama, but in the dreams he ignited in so many, many others.

Some people will question the sanity of women, people of color, the poor, the disabled and the gays and lesbians wondering how we can mourn a man who in the words of one of the commentators who posted about this piece “left a woman to die in his car”.   I don’t think they will ever (or perhaps can’t) understand what he did for people who were not born with his priviledges.  This is why so many of us stood and watched the motorcade and were glued to the television.  This is why Governor Deval Patrick could quote his mother “I love me some Kennedy.”  This is what we will miss.

Michael Jackson and Race

It has been more than a week since Michael Jackson was found near death in his rented home in Los Angeles and was pronounced dead at the emergency roon. I haven’t written about Jackson because I couldn’t quite figure out an approach. I have to admit that I liked the Jackson 5, admired “Thriller” and “We are the World”, but never really got into his post-Thriller music. And like everyone else, I spent years watching the horror show that was his life.  Now we are all picking though the comments and observations of everyone who can get air time.

I don’t know for sure if he was physically abused or not. His father says not, but some of his brothers say otherwise and I’m sure they are right. He was clearly psychologically abused.  Jackson used to say he had no childhood because he had to work all the time but I heard Barry Gordy describe pick-up basketball and baseball games with the Jackson kids, his kids and other children of the Motown family. I’m not sure we will ever know the truth. But we did watch him have extensive facial surgery so that his nose almost disappeared and we watched his skin turn paler and paler. (I don’t believe anyone who says he had a skin condition – no one else in his family seems to have a similar problem.) He tried to make himself Caucasian.  I couldn’t look at him anymore.

I heard someone say he sheltered his kids so they would not have a public upbringing. They point to Diana Ross as his role model – she raised kids and few people knew she had them. But he didn’t “shelter” them. He exploited them. The famous balcony scene with the baby, “Blanket”, being held over the edge; the kids – all white, by the way – being dressed up and paraded around. No one can tell me he was trying to shelter them. And now we learn that none of the three have any of Jackson’s DNA.

Patricia Williams  has put this all together for me.  In her column in the Nation, Williams writes

To me, the most arresting image of Michael Jackson was President George H.W. Bush citing him as a role model for young black men. It was 1990 and Jackson was at the height of his fame. “Man in the Mirror” had been released two years earlier. Jackson had not yet gone into full white-face disguise, but the handsome little brown boy of his first album had long since entered the bizarro phase of rhinestone gloves. I wondered then what on earth about Jackson could ever be a role model for anyone. Musical savant though he was, Jackson was, almost from the beginning, a tragic figure–so obviously trapped in that mirror, forever reflecting what others wanted him to be.

In the wake of his death, many have hailed his “crossover appeal.” There is no doubt that his musical acumen led to the integration of MTV; but that “appeal” had a more sinister undertone. If Elvis was “the White Negro,” so Michael fashioned himself into “the Negro Caucasian.” He literally erased himself before our eyes, his nose slowly disappearing, his skin fading to ghostly pallor, his voice growing higher and whispier, his body evaporating to a dry husk of barely a hundred pounds at the time of his death. It was hard not to be fascinated by him as he molted through all possible confusions of gender, race and sexuality. But his transgressivity was more than just theater; he mimed a narrative of constant paradox and infinite suffering.

I can understand the need to appear “lighter”, “whiter”.   I had one grandmother who despaired every summer when my sister and I turned browner and browner.  She believed, as many Japaneses did, that pale skin was a sign of upper classeness and dark skin of being a peasant.

Williams again

But in the longer term, the question of Michael Jackson’s children is challenging in other ways. Like his demands for plastic surgery or painkillers, their conception was accomplished as a made-to-order, cash-on-the-barrelhead commercial transaction. According to TMZ.com and other entertainment news sites, Jackson is not biologically related to any of his three children. Reportedly, the women who gestated them carried anonymously donated eggs fertilized by sperm from secret donors. Apparently the children were all crafted to be “white” enough to match Jackson’s artfully devised if pathetically alienated image of himself. Deborah Rowe, Jackson’s ex-wife and the surrogate who carried his oldest two children to term, describes being inseminated “like a horse”; she then received around $9 million to give up any claim to them. On the birth certificate of Jackson’s youngest child, the space for “mother” is left blank.

It’s hard to imagine that Jackson would have been found fit if he had attempted to adopt children. It is interesting to contemplate the eugenic ends to which in vitro fertilization and surrogate birth are being put these days, often as a kind of end run around the formal inspection of the adoption process. How much more common will the purchase of “the perfect child” become when bioengineering for specific physical traits becomes easier and less costly? It’s not a new problem: “colorism” (preference for lighter skin) is an old problem within the African-American community. Choosing trophy spouses is a cruder version of the same game. Nevertheless, it is troubling that the law of sales is about the only context for debating this rapidly developing area. Shouldn’t we think harder about the degree to which a free market for eugenics is enabled by easy-payment contract clauses conferring parenthood through the immaculate conception of biotechnology?

We can only hope that Michael Jackson leaves a legacy that is more than his music and that through his children we can begin a serious dialogue about genetic engineering.  This would be a very positive thing to leave behind.